Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 5, July 2006   Tuesday, July 11, 2006

ISSN 1748-3603

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PebblePad
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Issue 4 April 2006
April 27, 2006
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January 30, 2006
Issue 2
October 24, 2005
Issue 1
August 5, 2005
PebblePad
by Neal Sumner

PebblePad is an eportfolio system developed by Pebble Learning in collaboration with the University of Wolverhampton. Pebble Learning has recently added a version of the system aimed at Primary level: PebblePad Primary, indicating their commitment to the lifelong learning agenda but this review will focus on the system currently being used in further and higher education.

This review sets out the main functions of the Pebblepad eportfolio system and describes our experience of setting up and running a year-long pilot project using this tool at City University. The scheme has been running for eight months and the review aims to report on our experiences in advance of the more formal evaluation that we will complete at the end of the year’s trial. No information has been included here about pricing as PebblePad has a policy of setting prices according to student numbers in an institution.

Context

The decision to proceed with a pilot eportfolio project arose from meetings of City University’s Personal Development Planning (PDP) Group.  It was clear from discussions in this group that there was interest in an eportfolio tool that could be adapted to a variety of uses. The university’s aim was to find a tool which would not simply satisfy the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) but could also be used to:
  • enhance the student approach to learning throughout their course;
  • improve student skills;
  • facilitate dynamic CV building;
  • maintain City’s high employability record;
  • build on the best practices in PDP which are already a key part of some City courses, for example, Journalism and Health Sciences.

There was also some interest in using an eportfolio in formative and summative assessment. Thus we needed to source a generic tool which had maximum flexibility for the pilot project.

Setting up

We decided to proceed with PebblePad after reviewing five commercially available products. As this was a pilot scheme we required a system which was easy to set up, could be hosted externally and which was competitively priced; PebblePad met these criteria. Another factor in the decision to choose PebblePad was that our students and staff were able to use their familiar log-in IDs, though PebblePad issued different passwords which were sent to the users’ email accounts. Whilst the hosting of the system is external, the administration is local to City, which is very useful in terms of creating accounts and dealing with lost passwords. We were also able to arrange to have the City University brand incorporated into the environment (see Figures 1 and 2):


Figure 1: an example of City University branding on a PebblePad Weblog


Figure 2: PebblePad Webfolio page with City University branding

Staff were invited to an initial training session run by PebblePad, provided as part of the license agreement. This was invaluable and included the provision of exemplary materials which were accessible through the PebblePad tool.

How Does It Work?

1.Functions – inputs

As with most eportfolio systems PebblePad is predicated on the ownership by the individual of all the material which is stored within it. The initial screen which is accessed after logging on is immediately appealing and attractive to many of our users, for example, one commented that: ‘the pebble format is a useful metaphor for the stepping stones and staged process that can be used to put a portfolio together’.


Figure 3: opening screen after logging on

The opening screen and the portfolio screen look quite similar (see Figures 3 and 4), and some of our users found the need to switch between two similar-looking main screens to access different core functions rather confusing. 


Figure 4: portfolio management page

Materials that users wish to store in their eportfolio are called assets in the PebblePad system. Users can create materials under six different record types within PebblePad, as shown in Figure 5:


Figure 5: new record screen

Each record type has a menu which invites a title and description in order to make filing and searching more effective. Each input type has some online help available to prompt the user and allows notes to be added and/or reflections made. Also files can be uploaded, notes and reflections added, and all of these elements can be saved under one of six category headings to assist with the organisation of the eportfolio, as illustrated in Figure 6. An effective search tool and a spellchecker are available in the latest release.


Figure 6: categories under which assets are saved and stored.

Once the record has been completed, users are prompted with a list of options (see Figure 7) about what they can do with their new assets. This includes the ability to share assets with others, both within and beyond their PebblePad community.


Figure 7: screenshot of the actions for any file

Opinion is divided about the ease of use of this system among our pilot users. Some have found the diversity of options confusing and, unless they are regular users, they complain of getting lost and forgetting what the various icons and functions represent. Whilst some have praised the sharing facilities: ‘it is easy to share assets with people internal and external to our organisation’ others, both staff and students, have had some problems with this aspect. Creating groups of sharers, which can include both PebblePad and external users, is straightforward and there is an option to create quick share groups.

2. Functions – outputs

Outputs are divided into two main areas: a WebFolio and a WebLog. Within the WebFolio there is a CV tool which provides a customisable template. The WebLog allows for a link to an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. It is possible to import a transcript of achievement into the CV tool. The PebblePad team iscurrently working on the facility to export eportfolio material to media such as CD and DVD and into pdf files.

3. Help

PebblePad scaffolds the students’ use of the system with a series of help movies located on the Pebblelearning website which can be accessed with Windows Media Player (see Figure 8):


Figure 8: help movies available to support PebblePad

The help movies are augmented by a User Guide as well as a series of tip sheets on creating assets, linking, uploading files and creating communities of users with access rights to all or part of the eportfolio. Within the PebblePad environment there is a help facility which offers guidance on how to use the various functions available in the tool (see Figure 9):


Figure 9: help function – each folder contains advice on how to use that section

Whilst these support materials are clear and comprehensive, they assume a familiarity with PebblePad's portfolio building "language" which not all of our pilot users have found easy to follow, e.g. ‘some of the concepts seemed alien – resources??’[1]  In addition to staff training provided at the outset of the pilot, telephone and email help is available on request from the PebblePad team and there is a cross-institutional User Group.

Interoperability and portability: would this be better after the review of the features of the system?

Any institution looking to invest long term in an eportfolio tool will be concerned with the portability and interoperability of the system.  Interoperability, the facility with which the system can communicate with other systems such as Management Information Systems (MIS) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) is especially important for City students in view of the need for the portability of portfolios across national boundaries and between institutions. PebblePad is an XML based system which uses web services to communicate with a centrally hosted database. Whilst technical standards for eportfolio interoperability are still evolving, PebblePad is being developed in conformance to UKLEAP standards and has passed the EiFEL eportfolio plugfest interoperability test (see http://www.pebblelearning.co.uk/ep_cert.gif). The company is also working on a project to transfer student related information from the SITS student management system via Sweet.Net to the PebblePad eportfolio system. This will enable users to import materials from SITS, such as a transcript and statement of grades, into their PebblePad eportfolio. For further details see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_lipid&src=alpha. There has been some early success with this integration at Coventry University.

PebblePad requires Flash version 7 or above. Whilst this is a free download not all of our users had it installed on their PCs and this led to some initial access problems. There is a facility for limited customization of the interface in terms of colour, font and screen size. Some of our users expressed an initial concern that they would not have enough storage space on an externally hosted system but in practice this has not been an issue.  Any institution deciding to host PebblePad locally would be able to set their own storage limits.

Conclusion

How far has the PebblePad system helped us to realise our aims for the pilot scheme? There has been a lot of interest expressed in the tool around the University and for the most part it has met the requirements of the user community. There is broad agreement that PebblePad is structured in a way that encourages reflective learning, and it is relatively easy to add to and edit the various entries. In our pilot project, the PebblePad system has been most effectively used in supporting PDP and career development. The action planning tool, together with the self-assessment provided within the ability tool, has been widely used.

Although PebblePad has the potential to be used to promote both formative and summative assessment, it has not been used in this way on the pilot, as teachers have sought to maintain a clear division between the use of our VLE, CitySpace, and the eportfolio system. At the moment there is no power link between CitySpace (WebCT Vista) and PebblePad and the prospects for a seamless integration of the two systems are unclear. Nevertheless it is possible to use the PebblePad system as what the creators describe as a ‘VLE-lite’.  For example content can be delivered using the Gateway function: this makes possible the creation of web pages that teachers and learners can use to publish course materials for groups and modules. These can be password protected.

What has emerged from the pilot is that our Schools have a wide range of demands from an eportfolio system. Ideally they seek a level of customisation of the tool that readily maps against existing practices. Whilst one of PebblePad’s strengths is that it is a generic system, it is clear that staff and students will require considerable support if they are to succeed in embedding eportfolios in their practice. The next phase of our project will focus on ways of engaging curriculum designers in using eportfolios for assessment and integrating PDP more fully into the curricula. These challenges will have to be met if any eportfolio system is to succeed in an HE context; PebblePad is one of the better commercial systems available currently which can help to meet these goals.

Neal Sumner
E-Learning Consultant
E-Learning Services
City University
n.sumner@city.ac.uk
 
Pebble Learning Limited
http://www.pebblepad.co.uk
enquiries@pebblepad.co.uk
 

[1]Italics represent quotations from our user community.

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